Scott Crisp Writes Great Comedy, But He’s Lousy at Networking. He’s Trying to Try to Fix That.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Scott Crisp might be my favorite writer out of all the comics in the greater DFW scene, and I hate to say that because I’m basically conceding that I’m not my own favorite comedy writer here.
When we spoke, I tried to compare Crisp to John Swartzwelder, the iconic and enigmatic comedy writer who’s responsible for some of the most-beloved episodes of The Simpsons, and is a cult figure even among top comedy writers. Although Crisp quickly shied away from that comparison, he’s not standing over my shoulder as I write this, so I can return to it: Crisp reminds me of Swartzwelder.
Part of it is due to Crisp’s writing — both what he produces online and for his stand-up. There’s a loopy brilliance to his work. He uses a phenomenal grasp of language and timing to construct wonderful conceits, and he can tie off an idea with a punchline that’s terrific by itself, but also makes everything that came before it that much better.
I also think of Swartzwelder because of his legendary indifference to the limelight. There’s a coolness to Crisp’s approach to the business side of comedy that I assumed stemmed from a similar disinterest, but I came away with a different impression after talking with him for the below Q&A, in which we talk about how he develops material, his performance style and the unfortunate necessity of learning to self-promote.
If you like what you read, you can see Crisp step a little outside his element on Saturday, October 29, as he takes part in the Halloween Roast at Dallas Comedy House (DCH).
At the end of the month, you’re taking part in DCH’s Halloween Roast. Who’s the roast for this time?
Stephen King. To be honest, I know there are other monsters on it. I’m playing the Wolf Man. Mostly, I think, because of my appearance. But also, I’m a fan of the Wolf Man, I suppose. I guess more than any other monster. But yeah, we’re roasting Stephen King, that son of a bitch.
I don’t usually see you do performance stuff – this is a bit of a hybrid, though, because it’s more like doing stand-up in character.
I would love to do that stuff more, and I really admire that, and I love the performance stuff that people do. It’s just not my skill set normally, but this is perfect for me. It kind of is performance – and I’m sure other people will do more performance-y kind of stuff, but for me, I get to be part of that and participate. But mainly I’m just writing a roast set from a different perspective, which is a lot easier than doing something… I’m kind of taking it as, I guess this is really lazy, but the Wolf Man writing a roast set very simply. It kind of breaks it down into terms that are palatable for me. I can write a roast set. I think if I tried to lean in more to the theatrical aspects I’d be up the river, but I think I can write a roast set on behalf of Wolf Man.
You can get inside his head.
Yeah. I think I get it. We’ve all been monsters, all of us, whether in the depths of drug or drinking binges… My point is, there’s a little Wolf Man in all of us. And if he calls Stephen King a fuckin’ four-eyes or whatever, he’s a monster, you can’t get mad at him for it. I like operating in that area. Teflon. Actually, the worse things I say, it’ll be like, “Yeah, he’s a monster. More beast than man.” Really, if I get complaints specific to my set from people who say, “That guy was a monster,” I know I’ve done my job.
As far as stand-up is concerned, do you try to be expressive, or do you like staying deadpan?
I’m not as expressive as I’d like to be. It’s another safety net kind of thing, I think. But I generally come in kind of trusting more in my writing than in my feeling or where I was at, what was kind of behind the joke. I know a lot of people, they’ll go onstage with that feeling, and some idea of what they want to talk about, and that’s amazing, and I admire them, but every time I try to do that I’ve eaten buckets of dicks. [Laughs.] And every time I leave I’m like, “Write it out.” Like, write it out. I trust my writing. I’ve been doing [stand-up] for five years, maybe at some point…or maybe I have to trust myself at some point to do it. When I’m comfortable with a joke, I’ll be a little more loose with the words and stuff, but it’s still not really coming from any place of, I’m up here, like, improvising or speaking from the heart. Never speak from the heart, that’s my stance on comedy. [Laughs.]
It’s kind of a cliché, because I did it right after a breakup. That’s a pretty common thing. It was a really big, sad breakup. And I don’t know if I just didn’t know what else to do, or if, y’know, I want to say, “I was so hurt, nothing else could hurt me.” But that wasn’t true at all. [Laughs.] But no, I grew up kind of always loving comedy without really knowing what it was. I owned Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker, but I still had no concept that there was a whole art form — that I could go to a place in Dallas and work on material, I could do this thing. It was always so abstract to me. And plus, I was always an athletic kid, so I always kind of skewed more towards that area. I was never in theater or anything like that, that produces, that you see a lot of comics come from. For me, it was all that, and I had been I was writing – I had been writing since college, like funny, meant to be funny shit on Facebook, and I had taken that and started a short fiction blog. And I was getting OK feedback on it, but just like, not, from friends. It was very close. It was fulfilling kind of, and doing the work, and having a few people read it. But I kind of loved the idea of instant gratification of having a room full of people and knowing if it’s funny or not right that instant. That’s just so different from writing something on the internet and basically balling it up and throwing it into the ether. You never hear anything.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I’ll see you post on Facebook, really funny stuff, but it seems like it comes in these random fits of inspiration, and I’ll see a really funny string of posts come up late at night when most people are already asleep.
They do. That’s kind of how I’ve started to write more, the longer I’ve been in stand-up. I just have my phone on me. It’s less sitting down and trying to make something happen, and more trying to just be there. I can feel it, when I’m feeling full of whatever. I can feel it, it’s just a matter of recognizing that and being ready with my phone and writing everything down. I just have my phone with me all the time, I’m just ready. And that’s how – a lot of times when it is just a string of stuff, it’s just one of those moments that I’m probably caffeinated up, I’m probably on my couch, somewhere comfortable, and then I’ll just get lucky maybe a couple of times in a row writing stuff out. And then other times that’s the end result of all the notes I’ve taken for like a week. I’ll just finally put ’em down.
When I see you have those bursts of material, I get this image of you as like Dallas’s John Swartzwelder.
That is the highest praise I could ever imagine, and I am not worthy, but my God. He’s a hero.
Is he one of your comedy guys?
Absolutely. He’s my favorite Simpsons writer. I own a few of his novels, which are very funny. Him, Jack Handey, those are…as far as written word, stand-up…Woody Allen has written some really funny books.
I’ve read one of Woody Allen’s books, I can’t remember the title–
I think so.
That was a big one. It’s really good. It’s kind of funny, too, because Steve Martin has that book, Cruel Shoes, that’s short fiction. And was one of the main ones that got me thinking, “Oh, short fiction is a thing people actually…” [Laughs.] Because I discovered it after I’d been writing stupid short fiction, and I found out about Cruel Shoes and was like, “Oh thank God.” I mean it’s a little different, Steve Martin being, like, the biggest comedian on the planet and releasing short fiction, people will buy it because he’s the biggest comedian on the planet. But as far as non-stand-ups, Swartzwelder and Handey are my guys. They’re my favorite two.
I see you post all this funny stuff when most people are asleep that you put out just to put out there, it’s…almost like a zen thing? Like, “Here are some jokes,” and just let them out there.
Usually when I’m writing on Facebook or Twitter, I’m giving myself credit for really writing, I’ve started to do that. At some point in the week, I’ll look over the stuff I’ve written, and generally there’s a core joke there. And some of them are complete nonsense, of course, but there will be a little something there, in a very small percentage of them. But I take them at the end of the week and kind of look them over. That approach to stand-up, kind of aggregating everything from the week, it’s kind of freed me up to where if I feel like writing on Facebook that’s fine, if I feel like writing on Twitter that’s fine. I heard Pete Holmes say on a podcast what an easy boss he was on himself. I think he was talking specifically about all the things he considers writing, and I was like, “Yeah, I can kind of see that.”
It sounds like that’s something that evolved over time.
Yeah, and it’s really about– at the core, it’s about the central sentiment to that thinking is, just be writing. If you’re writing, it will be alright. It’s funny, because I say that, and I know I should be writing all the time. It can be really hard just to sit down. Even if you’re just writing a joke on Twitter it can be frustrating.
For me, if I can’t get the phrasing on something like a Twitter joke right in three or four times, I just accept that the idea isn’t there like I think it was and delete it.
I’m the same way. I’ve started to take tweets that are too long, and I’ll leave them in my notes on my phone, and I’ll go back – again, very low success rate on those, it’s a lot of nonsense. But it can frustrate the shit out of you. It is kind of helpful to have in your head that if you get frustrated by that tweet to not beat yourself up over it. Go write some stupid shit about what you ate for lunch on Facebook, y’know, just write something. I think that’s my key – always pleading with myself to write something, no matter what it’s on.
You’ve been picked to headline one of the new showcases at DCH. How’d that come about?
That came about from Grant [Redmond] asking me to do it at the open mic. He came to me right after they had changed the format – they used to do showcases, now they’re doing a more traditional opener-feature-headliner deal. And I’ve known Grant Redmond, of this interview fame, forever. We lived together for a while. We’re pretty good friends. He asked me shortly after they changed the format.
When I interviewed him, he talked about how it’s hard for comics to find opportunities to do more time. How are you preparing for something where you’re onstage for longer than you’re used to?
For a longer set, what I’ll usually do is I’ll take what I know I want to do, and whatever – if I have bits that are so down I can do them in my sleep, that goes to the bottom of the priority list – and I’ll split up my set and try to do it during that week’s open mics. And that can be hard, because if you do DCH on Tuesday and Hyena’s on Wednesday, that’s still only nine minutes. So hopefully six minutes of that stuff…
You hope most of it works.
Yeah – you go out and do the stuff you’re least familiar with, and I like to try to do it in the order that I will be doing it, but just break it up into a couple of nights and pray for the best. And write stuff on my hand. That’s the main thing – write the jokes on my hand.
Do you protect new jokes by starting with proven material at an open mic?
I will protect new jokes, for myself mostly. Like, yeah, I won’t bring out a new joke if it’s an empty open mic. I’m real sensitive. I know if I do a bit, I mean depending on how I feel, I rarely feel super confident in a bit, like from the time I write it I’m like, “Oh, I know this is gonna kill.” I almost never feel that way. But if I feel really good about a joke, I might do it at an empty open mic and be like, knowing ahead of time this might not get a laugh, but I’m confident in it. With more 50/50 stuff I’m not sure, I just won’t take it out. I’ll just do old stuff for the few people, and then yell at them if they don’t laugh, because other people have laughed before. [Laughs.]
Are you competing in this year’s Funniest Comic in Texas?
Nope. I totally forgot to submit. I’m an idiot. I wish – I’ve done it twice before. I haven’t advanced before, but I had a good time both times. It’s cool, it’s a lot of fun to do. But yeah, I procrastinated, then forgot. I was thwarted by my own disorganized-ness, if that’s a word.
You’ve got enough material to do longer sets, you’ve been doing comedy for a few years now, how has your approach changed on the business side of comedy?
The business side of comedy, I still am really not – that’s one of the parts I’m least confident in. I’m really bad at it. I’m not an organized person. That’s the part that I most often Dad Voice in my head tell myself I really need to shape up in that regard. I don’t know. If anything, my approach hasn’t changed that much, but it’s a knowledge that it should change.
It’s the realization that my approach to the business side really needs to change soon. Like I said, I am disorganized. And I think most comics are. But it’s not like you have to be a 1930s accountant, it’s not like you have to keep a lot of stuff in line, it’s just keeping the few things you have in line. It’s that side that I grudgingly tell myself I need to get better at. What really goes into the business side is hanging out, and ever since I quit drinking like a year-and-a-half ago, that’s way harder to do. I just want to go home and lay on the couch. When I was drinking – and don’t get me wrong, there’s a part of me that wants to hang out, but I also have a very anxious, anxiety-ridden part of me that wants to go home. Like, out, don’t talk to anybody. And when I had the booze it was easier, but I still wasn’t out all the time. But I definitely need to develop an approach to the business side. [Laughs.]
There’s plenty of people in comedy like that – you’re good at cloistering yourself off and doing the work, but when it comes to making connections and putting your name out there, that anxiety makes things harder.
You want your face to be in everyone’s head, and you don’t have to be best friends with everybody, but you want to be friendly and talk to everyone. It’s just basic social stuff, I’m just bad at it. Especially without the booze. It’s been an adjustment. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m cursing sobriety or anything, that just goes on the pile of complaints about myself, not handling the business side of comedy as well as I should.
What are your thoughts on the Dallas comedy scene?
I think the Dallas comedy scene is…I don’t know. It’s my home, I love it, I think….Y’know, there’s a quote from the early 20th century about America: The problem with America is everyone…something about the biggest problem with America is everyone thinks they know the biggest problem…I feel like with Dallas, there is some drama, and infighting, and stuff that you would find in every scene. I don’t know, I think it gets a little overblown. Coming from a place that I did, I had never been a part of anything like stand-up. I played baseball in college, I came from an athletics background. I see the infighting and stuff and I get that, and I get the complaints, but this is one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever been around. And not just in a tough, “We’re gonna break your balls and build you back up,” [way.] A lot of people are just genuinely nice in the scene, and welcoming. Very supportive. I think it’s good. We have a couple of good open mics that can be counted on every week. We have places to do stand-up, there are bar shows every week. I’m from here, so I just consider myself lucky. Who knows, if I had been born in Killeen, I might be doing the same thing I’m doing now and living near my hometown and trying to do comedy. I feel like there’s a lot to feel good about with the Dallas scene. And we have some really funny people here, too. We have some really good comics. Overall, I feel pretty good about it. It has its warts like any other scene – and again, I have no basis for comparison. [Laughs.] I might get to another comedy town someday and be like, “Oh, Dallas is bullshit.” [Laughs.] But I think the Dallas comedy scene has been very kind to me, and I like to think it’s a good, positive scene.